Marianne Dissard met Howe Gelb when she was 19. She was headed to Los Angeles to find a film career, and her car was packed. Friends gathered to say goodbye at a club not far from Dissard's family home in the Phoenix area.
Gelb was there, heading out on what would be a two-month tour with John Convertino. Ever spontaneous, he suggested that Marianne housesit. Dissard took him up on it.
From there, her working-class values, nose for opportunity, relentless networking and no small amount of talent eventually yielded a chanteuse and performance artist. Today, she has a showcase invitation to the 2011 South by Southwest Music conference, and a train trip across Asia is on the horizon.
"I come from filmmaking," she says. "First poetry, then filmmaking. Now that I'm getting more confidence onstage and in what I'm doing—making this album (her new L'Abandon) gave me a huge boost of confidence—I felt that I could also integrate things that I knew beforehand. Performance art, filmmaking—it's all coming back."
So it is that the CD-release concert for L'Abandon will be preceded by a screening of its companion film, Lonesome Cowgirls, and some short videos at the Screening Room. The preceding night, the Screening Room will feature a retrospective of her short films at 8 p.m. Among the works will be Drunken Bees, which documents an early period of Gelb's music residency in Tucson, including the vibe of Barrio Viejo and the constellation of musicians he drew into his various whims.
Lonesome Cowgirls will be the main feature, and the one viewers are likely to talk about the longest, for its whimsy, violence, desperate landscape and cracked, but holding, sense of community.
The film came about when Dissard was considering making a music video to promote the new album. "It came magically," she says.
Last year's Tucson Museum of Art exhibit of Andy Warhol's work sparked a renewed local interest in the artist, and several related events were held across Tucson, including a screening of Warhol's shambolic Lonesome Cowboys, which was filmed around Tucson. The film inspired Dissard to produce a remake as a metaphor for her album's subject matter: the textures of a fraught relationship captive to the intense energy and infinite distractions of contemporary society. "The Warhol movie," she says, "is just like downtown Tucson—the way we relate to each other. It is the West. Western civilization."
She invited local performance-art troupe Parasol Project to co-produce, with the concept of filming it all in just 24 hours at Cowtown Keeylocko, a gritty but fanciful ranch and occasional bar west of Tucson, halfway to Sells. An open call went out; friends were invited to camp out; and a number of musicians were invited to entertain.
The film's visual context provides a unique setting for Dissard's chanson style. The chemistry is one perhaps only Dissard might have predicted, but it feels right, instinctively, upon viewing.
Dissard was born in France and lived there until, at 16, her father's work with Motorola led the family to Mesa. The chanson style is her birthright and would be visible in her to almost anyone, I think, from across the room, as it was to me when I first saw her selling roses to patrons at Club Congress a decade ago.
"The chanson tradition," she says, "is always that line between extreme, overt theatricality, the 'dramaticality' of it, and the spoken part. You can hear every single word I'm saying, but at the same time, I'm living it; it's in the body; it's incarnation."
Joey Burns was the first to showcase Marianne in a musical context. He often invited her onstage to "incarnate" the femme fatale in Calexico's "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," inspired, remotely, by the cult-classic Sam Peckinpah film.
Dissard had acquired a large network of friends in the music industry through her friendships with Gelb and Burns, but it was a filmmaking project in Paris that set her on a path to making her own music. The project involved a documentary about a political-performance troupe, among which was a guitar player, Naim Amor. She and Amor began a relationship that inspired her to send him one of her poems to put to music. That collaboration eventually launched Amor's career in the U.S. Dissard's lyrics became a fixture in songs by the Amor Belhom Duo, and her drive and tenacity won them a recording contract and club bookings scattered across the country.
Amor and Burns supported her in making music of her own. Burns composed melodies and arrangements for lyrics she wrote from her poetry. He accompanied her on demos that eventually became her first release in 2006, Dedicated to Your Walls, May They Keep Blooming. Over the next two years, she created as many occasions as possible to sing in public, characteristically setting before herself ever-greater challenges as her confidence grew.
A second album, L'Entredeux, followed in 2008, and Dissard booked tours behind it, including two trips to Europe with two different bands. After each trip, she spent several days in Italy writing songs with a pianist and songwriter, Christian Ravaglioli, whom she had met when he was recording here at Wavelab Studio. Ravaglioli did not speak English or French. "He would try to find a melody," she says, "and I would go through my notebooks: 'That song sounds like it wants to be in the mood of ... something.'"
Ravaglioli came to Tucson with an armload of meticulously annotated charts. Dissard gathered the musicians, including Canadian Luke Doucet; Giant Sand bassist and Dane, Thøger Lund; and Tucsonans Arthur Vint on drums and percussion, and Connor Gallaher on lap steel and guitar.
Dissard already is rehearsing her band for the next road trip. "My big plan after New Zealand and Australia," she says, "is to hop over to Asia and take a train all the way back to Italy to start working with Christian on the new, new album."